“More than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy had not stalled as a direct result of austerity cuts, according to a hard-hitting analysis to be published this week.
The study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank finds that, after two decades in which preventable diseases were reduced as a result of spending on better education and prevention, there has been a seven-year “perfect storm” in which state provision has been pared back because of budget cuts, while harmful behaviours among people of all ages have increased.
Had progress been maintained at pre-2013 rates, around 131,000 lives could have been saved, the IPPR concludes. Despite promises made during the NHS’s 100th birthday celebrations last year to prioritise prevention, the UK is now only halfway up a table of OECD countries on its record for tackling preventable diseases.
The report is concerned with preventable diseases or disorders such as heart disease, lung cancer or liver problems, which can be caused by unhealthy lifestyles and habits, formed often at a young age. It finds evidence of disturbing reductions in physical activity in schools and chronic underfunding of health visitors.
The lead researcher and author, Dean Hochlaf, said: “We have seen progress in reducing preventable disease flatline since 2012. At the same time, local authorities have seen significant cuts to their public health budgets, which has severely impacted the capacity of preventative services.
“Social conditions for many have failed to improve since the economic crisis, creating a perfect storm that encourages harmful health behaviours. This health challenge will only continue to worsen.”
The IPPR calls for a “radical new prevention strategy” involving a renewed and increased commitment to the state’s role in preventing disease.
“No longer can we place the burden of responsibility exclusively upon the individual, while turning a blind eye to a social environment which makes healthy lifestyles difficult to achieve. This means investing in public health and ensuring the government takes a greater responsibility to create a healthy environment.”
On cuts to physical education in school, it says: “PE has been reduced in schools across England, with a 5% reduction at key stage 3 and a 21% reduction across key stage 4 reported between 2011 and 2017. This is despite the noted benefits of physical education – not simply on physical development, but also through promoting healthier lifestyles and helping to enhance people’s cognitive and social skills.”
The report adds: “Funding for physical education – supposedly coming from the sugar tax revenues – was reduced in 2017 from £415m to £100m, to part fund an increase in the core school budget. The lost funding should be replenished, potentially funded by an expansion of the sugar levy to other drinks and confectionery with high sugar content.”
Five compulsory health visits should be made to every child during their early life, with an additional visit six months before a child starts nursery school, the IPPR says. “These should be carried out by a trained professional. Health visitors should be provided with additional training to collect vital information on key health indicators and be prepared to offer support and guidance to encourage breastfeeding based on clinical evidence and ensuring that parents are vaccinating their children.”
Researchers found the system of health visits creaking under the strain.
“An estimated two in five (44%) of health visitors reported caseloads in excess of 400 children, well above the recommended level of 250 per visitor needed to deliver a safe service.” The report recommends another 5,100 training places for health visitors.
In a statement, the Local Government Association said the government urgently needed to reverse the £700m reduction in public health funding since 2015 and plug a £3.6bn gap in funding for adult social care by 2025.”